House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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9. Sittings of the House


Under the Constitution Act, 1867, a quorum of 20 Members, including the Speaker, is required “to constitute a meeting of the House for the exercise of its powers”. [5]  This constitutional requirement is reiterated in the Standing Orders, which also set out the procedure to be followed in cases where the House lacks a quorum. [6]  Although there have been several attempts to increase the size of quorum, it has remained unchanged since Confederation. [7]  Modern-day demands on Members’ time are such that attending the sittings of the House is only one of many duties. Party whips have thus traditionally been responsible, through the use of roster systems, for ensuring that the required number of Members is present to maintain the quorum. [8] 

Quorum Before a Sitting Begins

Should a quorum appear not to exist at the time the House is scheduled to meet, a count of the House is taken by the Speaker. If fewer than 20 Members are present, the Speaker adjourns the House until the next sitting day. [9]  The Speaker may take such an initiative only before the House has been called to order. [10]  Once the sitting has begun, “control over the competence of the House is transferred from the Speaker to the House itself. … The Speaker has no right to close a sitting at his own discretion.” [11]  There are no known instances of this having happened at the beginning of a sitting and, in practice, the bells summoning Members to the House at the start of a sitting are not silenced until a quorum exists, often some minutes after the appointed meeting time. [12] 

Quorum During a Sitting

During a sitting, any Member may draw the attention of the Speaker to the lack of a quorum, requesting a “count” of the Members present. Such a request may be made while another Member is speaking. If a quorum is obviously present, the Speaker may simply announce that there is a quorum, dispense with the count and proceed with the business. If there is some doubt as to there being a quorum, a count is made by the Speaker. If a quorum is present, business continues. [13]  However, if no quorum exists after the first count, the bells are ordered to be rung for no longer than 15 minutes. Within that time period, if a second count determines that a quorum is present, the Speaker will order the bells silenced and the House will proceed with the business before it. [14]  If at the end of the 15 minutes a second count reveals that there is still no quorum, the Speaker adjourns the House until the next sitting day; [15]  the names of the Members present are recorded in the Journals[16] 

As in the House, the quorum in a Committee of the Whole is 20 Members. If notice is taken by a Member that there is not a quorum present in a Committee of the Whole, the Chairman counts the Members. If there is not a quorum, the Committee rises and the House resumes its sitting. [17]  On a report from the Chairman of the Committee, the Speaker counts the House. If there is not a quorum, the bells are rung for a maximum of 15 minutes.

Usually, quorum is quickly restored so that the House may proceed with the business before it. [18]  Should the House be required to adjourn for lack of quorum, any Order of the Day under consideration at the time, with the exception of an item of Private Members’ Business not selected to come to a vote, retains its precedence on the Order Paper for the next sitting. [19] 

A number of practices govern how the determination of a quorum is made. A Member who calls quorum need not remain in the House. [20]  Furthermore, a Member who calls quorum while speaking and who subsequently leaves the House may, upon returning after a count that confirmed a quorum, resume speaking. [21]  As well, Members need not be in their seat in order to be counted. [22]  While the count is taking place, no point of order or question of privilege will be considered by the Chair. [23] 

When the Speaker adjourns the House for want of a quorum, either at the start of a sitting or during a sitting, Members present are asked to come to the Table and sign the scroll in order that their names may be recorded in the Journals. Logically, only the names of those Members counted ought to appear in the scroll, although in practice this has not always been the case, given that Members are free to enter or leave the Chamber during and after a count. As such, the list of Members entered in the Journals may exceed 20 names. [24]  Thus, to adjourn the House, it is the count which is decisive, not the list of names. [25] 

Lack of Quorum During Divisions

During a recorded division, if the Speaker’s attention is drawn to the fact that the sum of the votes and the number of Members present who did not vote (including the Speaker) do not total at least 20, then the question remains undecided; the usual quorum procedure is then triggered. If no objection is raised at the time the result of the vote is read to the House, the Speaker simply confirms the result and business proceeds as though there were a quorum. [26] 

Quorum When the Attendance of the House is Requested in the Senate

A quorum is deemed to exist, regardless of the number of Members in attendance, whenever a message is received for the attendance of the House in the Senate. [27]  The constitutional requirement for a quorum of 20 Members does not apply when the House is summoned to the Senate, since the House is not, in fact, exercising any of its powers in responding to the message; it is simply acting as a witness to the proceedings about to take place in the Upper Chamber.

Most messages requiring the attendance of the House in the Senate Chamber are, by prior arrangement, delivered by the Usher of the Black Rod at times when the House is sitting and thus when a quorum is likely to be present. In those instances, the message is received by the Speaker as soon as it arrives and the House, led by the Speaker, proceeds to the Senate. [28]  However, there are occasions when the House stands adjourned and its attendance is required for Royal Assent ceremonies. In such cases, the Speaker may, at the request of the government, cause the House to meet during a period of adjournment for the sole purpose of giving Royal Assent to a bill or bills, following which the House stands further adjourned. [29]  In such circumstances, when it is known that the attendance of the House in the Senate will be desired, the Speaker causes the House to meet at an appointed hour. When the Usher of the Black Rod arrives, the Speaker receives the message and, with the Members then present (often less than a quorum), proceeds to the Senate.

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